Just returning from the Costa Cruise line's Mediterranea yesterday, I have contemplated strongly just how to write a fair review of this cruise ship, the Costa cruise line, and the locations visited. Firstly- I am an American living in Italy, familiar with the Italian culture and lifestyle. I speak enough Italian to communicate effectively and live in an Italian town without any problems. That said, I am writing this review geared towards any Americans considering flying over and using Costa for a cruise.
Did I enjoy the cruise? Overall, yes. The destinations were tremendous and somewhat surprising once we got there. The ship was overall excellent, very clean, with an excellent mix of European and American passengers.
Would I ever go on a Costa cruise again? Absolutely not. The "Italian hospitality" that the cruise line markets itself on is neither Italian, nor hospitable. I will site some of the many problems this cruise line has concerning customer service. Take note- I am an American, and our standards of customer service do differ drastically from European, and specifically Italian standards in many regards. Not all of these gradients are necessarily bad, as I have experienced many delightful experiences traveling all of southern Europe, extensively in Italy itself.
Since I live only 45 minutes from Venice, travel to the port was easy and hassle-free. Those flying in will be jet-lagged and may have several hours to spare in Venice at the port, since you cannot board the ship until at least 2:30pm, which our travel agent was wrong about (she said noon was the time to board). We arrived at noon expecting to board, and had to find a way to burn 2 1/2 hours with a toddler. Not a problem- if you also arrive too early, take a brisk walk (don't get ripped off by a taxi) to the parking garage about 5 minutes from the port, and on the other side take a water taxi to Venice, and enjoy Saint Mark's square for the remainder.
The ship is massive and impressively clean. Being my third cruise (one on Carnival and one on Norwegian), I found the ship's amenities to be on par with other cruise ships.
Ship's services and features: Child services: Under 3, nothing. Over 3- a dumping ground for parents that want to drop their children and run. I spotted the "squawk" groups during the cruise being entertained by Italian babysitters, doing mindless games and eating snacks. If you are taking your children on a cruise, don't subject them to this extremely lacking and pathetic treatment- leave them at home, or incorporate them into the cruise and excursions- we did it with a 2yr old, and it was quite acceptable and enjoyable. Get a baby-backpack, do not use a stroller- Istanbul was incredibly crowded.
Ship excursions- Costa offers these packages for each port- they range in price from 30 to over 100 euros for tours of the various sights. We did just one in Greece, in Olympia- because Costa neglected to tell anyone that the ruins of Olympia are over 45 minutes away from port. We jumped on a tour at the last second and found it terrible. We learned from the Greek trip and did everything else on our own- and had a blast. The tours are overpriced- the English speaking tour guide was hard to understand, rambled on longer than this review, and moved slower than pond water through the sites.
Bari was the first stop- and since we live in Italy, we were disappointed. Other American visitors were as well, since Bari has little to see within walking distance of the ship aside from the famous castle and a few "ho-hum" cathedrals. My recommendation to Costa would be to shift the Bari stop to a further south Italian location- something with beaches or more history or something better than Bari.
Olympia was the next day- we realized we needed transportation when an employee overheard us and told us the ruins were 45 minutes away. Another couple was in the same situation we were, and they jumped in a taxi. We did the excursion, and even ran into that couple later in the ruins. Their taxi fare was half of our excursion cost, and their taxi was parked at the entrance waiting on them- they had the better time. Olympia was less than expected- everything truly is in ruins- few of the columns are even standing.
Izmir, Turkey- the third day. We expected this day to be uneventful- we planned on only walking around the immediate area of the port- when we encountered taxis right at the edge of the port. For 80 euro- they offered a round-trip transport to the ancient ruins of Ephesus- where one of the old Seven Wonders of the World lay in ruins. We gambled, and jumped in with our toddler. The hour-long taxi ride was worth it- the location was amazing- far more sights and rich history than Olympia.
Istanbul- again, we avoided the tours- 100 euro for a 9 hour tour was the one we thought about; well- we did it on foot in less than seven hours (again- with a toddler in a baby back-pack), saw all the sights including more, had chai (tea) in a carpet shop, talked politics and world events with many friendly merchants, got lost in the Topekai Palace exterior gardens, hit most all of the Grand Bazaar, and walked back through the local quarter- an amazing exciting time. Grab a map, buy or use a library tour book, bring a compass (those little bubble ones you can slip on your watch band work just fine) and enjoy. Don't use Costa's tours unless you have a heart condition or just enjoy throwing your money and time away.
Croatia- walled town of Dunkirk- overall very pretty- but too crowded by our own cruise tourists. The walled town is only about 1500 meters wide, and the nearly 1,000 tourists from the ship crammed it completely. We got out of the town, walked up some cliffs overlooking the city, and got amazing photos- found a nice little beach, avoided the tours and crowds.
Finally- my biggest issue with Costa- Customer Service. Little things bugged me throughout the trip- but I didn't want them to bother me during my vacation, so I let them all go and concentrated on the enjoyable times- until the last day. Costa bills you a "standardized gratuity" which their guide clearly states you can adjust higher or lower, whatever you prefer. Nowhere is it stated that you must do anything prior to checking out. We even attended the "check-out day" briefing the day prior, and the woman again stated to the English speaking group that we could adjust the tip through Guest Services. My wife and I got our bill the day prior, and saw the breakdown- about 19 euros for the waiters, our housekeeper/maid, and the maitre'd (head waiter-type, for all you non-French speakers). Now, the maid was fine, and our waiters (Rex and Alex) were absolutely amazing. But the maitre'd?? For us, he would occasionally say "good evening," but he spent most of his time chatting with the Italian tables and ignored the German and English tables. I even watched as he walked around my wife's chair, and chatted with an Italian gentleman for 10 minutes while I ate my dinner staring at his backside, as it was pushed up against my wife's chair. Did he turn around and ask us how our meals were at least? Nope. So- we decided to move his tip over to our waiters, and add to it to make it an even 20 euros on top of their tip already. So, that morning, my wife went to guest services to check out and do that seemingly simple task. She returned an hour later in tears.
After waiting in one long line, my wife was told to go to another line to do the tip change. After waiting in this second line another 25 minutes- the Italian woman there rudely told her that she could not do it either, that she had to go to yet another line. My wife politely expressed her dissatisfaction with the service so far, which resulted in a snide remark from the woman and a dismissing hand wave away from the desk. My wife then approached this third employee- an Italian man this time. She explained the situation- and he told her "no. You cannot change it now." She asked to speak with his manager. He then looked up at her, and said there was no manager available. He then went back to work, ignoring my wife standing over him. She was very upset by this time, and again asked if he was going to help her. This Costa cruise employee, demonstrating their "Italian hospitality" told my wife again that nothing could be done, and continued to ignore her. When she told me the situation, I took my toddler downstairs with her to take care of this myself. I approached the man my wife pointed out, and I interrupted his business to discuss the situation at hand. I had their Costa guide in my hand, and gave it to him with the area underlined stating that we could adjust the tips as we wished. He rudely told me we could not, and handed me the guide back. I asked him for his manager, and he told me "no" and went back to work. I again said "please get me your manager." He said, "no- but I can call security." I was shocked. Here I was, holding a toddler in one hand, requesting assistance with their own guidebook in my other hand, and this guy was threatening me with security???? All of this over just trying to tip our waiters more for their excellent service. Well- again, I maintained my composure and asked a third time- get me your manager. My wife found a phone nearby, and called the help desk and explained the situation. Eventually- we were directed to a manager, who would not leave his office to come see us; we had to go to his location. There- he told us that we could not change any bill amounts; it all had to be done yesterday. He agreed that their own guide book was "not correct" and their Costa briefing yesterday was "not correct." His crew was "not correct," but now he was empowering us with the "correct" information. I expressed my extreme dissatisfaction with the employee I dealt with, and informed the manager of my residency in Italy and current job with the US government, and that when fellow co-workers asked me of my Costa cruise experience- that this last day would define my overall assessment of the Costa cruise line. The manager seemed mildly interested, and very non-confrontational. He just wanted us to let it go- not change anything, stick to the status-quo.
So- long winded, and if you read this whole thing; please understand that I truly enjoyed the trip, especially the Turkish ports. The food was fine, the ship was clean, and even with a high-energy toddler, we all had a great time overall until this last day. This last day may just have involved a few Costa employees that do not represent a systemic problem in Costa overall, but when confronted with their own printed regulations and their own briefings they provide passengers, they still were right, and the customer was wrong. In America, nearly any self-respecting business would have quickly helped us out, and perhaps serious consequences would have befell the rude employee we encountered- but right now, as I type this, that Costa employee is somewhere near Bari with another boat-load of passengers. Too bad those passengers won't find out until next Sunday that their maitre'd is getting his 16 euros whether they like it or not.